The Indian Dalit Who Defied Caste to Bless Others
Raj and I stepped out of our car on the side of a highway into the full force of Indian heat. Twenty yards behind us, a figure stepped out from another car and approached us with the gait of a government official. Cars whizzed past along the barren landscape of rural Tamil Nadu, one of the southern states of India.
Raj and this man had only met once and had not seen each other for 32 years. The last time, Raj was nineteen years old, standing bloodied and bruised in the office of this policeman.
Raj was a Christian and a Dalit, (from an untouchable caste), and he had come to file a case for being beaten by twenty high-caste young men. This man was a police inspector by the name of Chitharanjan, whose police force served the families responsible for the attack on Raj. Raj decided he would attempt to file this case even though by doing so, he risked losing his life, subjecting his family to abuse, and jeopardizing the jobs of his entire village. Now this policeman had a decision to make – obey his superior police officer or file the case and lose his job.
Christian Dalits are one of the most suppressed and persecuted segment of India’s population, enduring prejudice as Dalits and as Christians. As the Hindu-nationlist party, BJP, maintains control at the national level and continues to gain control in many states, Christians find themselves expelled from the protection of the law. Christians and their institutions currently survive at the mercy of staying on officials’ “good side” and face constant threat from unchecked hindu-nationalist groups. Just last week a mob attacked a large christian college in Goa.
For the christian Dalit, this tension is multiplied by the obstacles and violence Dalits encounter because of their caste. India’s National Crime Record Bureau reports that atrocities against Dalits has steadily increased in recent years. The average rate of murder over the past 25 years amounts to 2.3 murders a day, while 2021 alone rose to 3.27 a day. Tragically, the 2021 number of rapes was 2.4 times the number averaged from the past 25 years. Despite government benefits and programs, Dalits continue to be in a vulnerable position.
To make matters worse, Christian Dalits suffer from prejudice from the church itself. Thus, as Dalits, they face a gridlocked system within the church and society that maintains their poverty, while as Christians, they lose access to the government benefits so desperately needed for Dalits to overcome these obstacles.
Raj has endured considerable challenge due to his ancestry and faith. Yet, God has been at work. Throughout his story, God gives small victories through faithful characters. And it is undeniable that the Christian way of neighborly love, integrity, and forgiveness are some of the most powerful movers for social justice. On this day, I watched Raj and this policeman clasp hands like long-lost brothers, and we relived a triumph from 32 years ago that still carries momentum to this day.
The Plight of the Dalit
Raj was born in 1966 to a Dalit family amidst the banana plantations and tamarind trees of rural Tamil Nadu outside of a town named Anaigudi. His family belongs to the Pariyan people, who have worked for generations as grave-diggers and use the hides of the dead animals they bury to make drums. This work is “unclean” and has stigmatized this group as “untouchable” for thousands of years. To this day, there are 1,108 different communities in India that are considered untouchable or dalit and referred to as “Scheduled Caste” in India law. Dalits experience economic oppression, spiritual oppression, societal segregation and lack of protection from the government. With seemingly no way out of their situation, hopelessness has sealed their fate.
Dalits were not allowed to own land, and thus many were forced into a feudalistic system of debt bondage. Raj’s family was paid one quarter of the amount that was declared the international poverty line at that time. The idea of debt was used to keep them working for a low wage, even though
their labor was never actually counted towards working off this debt. This system makes the poor dependent on the landowners to give them work and sustenance, when all the while it is those landowners who perpetuate their neediness.While this system is now illegal, this is still a common scenario in India to this day. For educated dalits who are working white collar jobs, closed opportunities can come more subtly through lack of promotion, threats and insults, and ostracization from peers.
This economic oppression was accompanied with spiritual oppression. Often, the lower the caste, the more animistic Hindu practices become. Raj’s people worshiped the god of the graveyard through sacrificing the family goat – the most precious belonging to the family, and drinking its blood before the god. Individuals would place themselves in pain by walking on coals or piercing their cheeks with a metal rod and enduring the rod for days as worship and ways to gain the god’s blessing.
They worshiped out of fear, and their worship practices only sealed their identity as untouchable. Although Raj’s people would give to the local temple, the Brahmin priests would not go near their religious ceremonies. Even their god was inferior to the gods that the Brahmin and high castes worshiped.
Too unclean to interact with the rest of society, Raj’s community built a satellite settlement a quarter mile outside of Anaigudi. As a child, Raj was not allowed to wear shoes and was expected to walk looking at the ground when he passed through the town. He could not enter the homes of the high caste townspeople nor the Hindu temple. His people were segregated from the rest of society in every aspect of life, and overstepping these rules would mean violent punishment.
Raj grew up seeing individuals from his community beaten by mobs of high caste men for leaning too close on the temple wall or taking coconuts from the side of the road that were three days old. The punishers would often smear mud on the untouchables, shave their heads, and slap them with shoes for overstepping their place.
Lack of Government Protection
The local government was no refuge, but rather another threat wielded by the high castes. Members in Raj’s community would frequently be arrested for illegally making alcohol, which they were coerced into making for their landlords.
India had only become a nation under a constitution sixteen years before Raj’s birth. However, laws that upheld the rights of all Indian citizens, and were particularly aimed at protecting dalits, quickly gave way to the millenia of tradition that opposed them. After all, the caste system had operated as the glue that held together Indian society and maintained social order for thousands of years.
It is a common saying that, “Better one’s own duty ill-done, than someone else’s, well performed,” succumbing to the Hindu ethic of dharma, and that one’s highest aim is to carry out one’s ancestral destiny. The acceptance of destiny perpetuated a fatalism in Raj’s community that was accompanied by alcoholism and domestic abuse.
There was nothing stopping Raj from continuing in the fatalistic cycle as a landless laborer succumbed to an oppressive religion, debt bondage, and violently enforced caste suppression… had it not been for a significant twist to the plot.
Neighborly Love- The First Agent of Transformation
This twist came in the form of two Christian organizations. The first was a primary school formed in the 1800’s by a British missionary named Caldwell which allowed dalit children to attend school. With his tattered hand-me down uniform and borrowed school books, Raj was granted the opportunity to learn, despite his caste. Raj attended like his siblings had before him. However, unlike his brothers, Raj turned out to be the best in his class and outperformed even the high-caste children. Rather than dropping out by age 10 to work in the plantation as a child laborer, Raj continued onto secondary school. He continued, that is, until his parents could no longer afford the eight-dollars a year school fee.
And so entered a second significant agent of transformation: a child-sponsorship program with a large Christian, international organization, and one particular social worker.
In an astounding act of neighborly love, Raj was granted fees for school, a daily meal, tutoring, and most astounding of all, friendship. The social worker who managed that office actually stepped foot into Raj’s dalit community to teach children Bible stories, and did so every week. He took Raj as a friend and a teammate. Through this person, Raj encountered Christ.
This ignited the singular most transformative experience in Raj’s life – for it was here that he first experienced being treated with true value and love, simply for being a human. Raj will often say, “I was nobody, but God made me somebody.” Raj chose to leave his peoples’ god and follow Jesus. The transformation that took place in Raj was so incredible that half of Raj’s community, about 100 dalits, became Christians.
They began attending a church in Anaigudi. While the church allowed them to attend, the dalits were segregated to the back of the church and were served communion after the service rather than with the rest of the congregation. In response, the dalits eventually built their own church at the entrance to their settlement, their faith in Jesus undeterred.
Catalyzed by encountering real love through this social worker, Raj was catapulted into bringing hope to his community.
Raj began to tackle the systemic issues of alcoholism and domestic abuse in his community. Continually inspired by God’s love and grace, he was soon leading a team of boys from his community to help Dalit villages all around them. A political party, the “Indian National Congress”’ or INC, recognized Raj’s political potential through his influence with Dalits, and propelled him into leading advocacy for over 200 Dalit villages, all when Raj was only fifteen years old.
Through scoring the best marks in his class once again, Raj achieved a scholarship to university, where he continued in advocacy work for Dalits with the INC party while he studied. By age nineteen, Raj was youth taluk president and had created a legacy of hope-filled communities. Life seemed to be looking up for Raj. However, as Raj’s influence rose, the anxiety and anger of the Anaigudi townspeople rose with it.
“Anna” means “older brother” in Tamil. It denotes respect to an older peer. This is what Raj accidentally called Prakash, the son of Anaigudi’s resident politician who happened to be one of the most influential politicians in the region. This is what provoked the assault.
In 1985, Raj was nineteen years old, and home from college on Christmas break. Raj was riding a bike with his friend when they encountered a group of twenty young men from the town waiting for them. Before Raj could know what was happening, they were beating him and dragging him into the town square. Most of his clothes were torn off in the beating and dragging. Through the blows, Raj found himself being strapped to an electricity pole in the center of the town.
The townspeople gathered around the mob of young men to watch. Across the town square, the hindu temple stood and church spires rose from the next street over. Even though Raj had participated in that church and many of his teachers lived in the town, nobody stepped in to stop the attack. Instead, they watched or they hid.
However, half of the Dalits in Raj’s community came into the town, and knelt at the feet of the mob to plead for Raj’s life. This type of organized effort by dalits on behalf of another Dalit had never happened before in that town.
Still, it was thirty minutes until the blows stopped. At this point, a town elder even reprimanded the mob of young men for keeping Raj alive. The dalits helped Raj walk out of the town, but Raj was not going to stop there.
He had just been beaten by twenty young men at the approval of the entire town at the instigation of the son of one of the most powerful politicians in the region, but Raj was going to file a case for the assault. It was not long before he was standing before the police officer, bloodied and bruised, requesting to file a case.
Integrity – The Second Agent of Transformation
Cracks in the justice system are not exposed until they are put under pressure, but a dalit coming with a case against the son of a high-ranking politician is certainly pressure. For inspector Chitharanjan, this meant the pressure of constant phone calls from the superintendent of police, the owner of a prominent newspaper, and none other than the highest ranking police official in the state. They knew that if this case were not filed immediately, it would be lost into obscurity.
If it were filed, however, it would be placed in a special track reserved for atrocities and abuse on members of the scheduled caste, i.e. Dalits, in accordance with the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989. This special was track reserved for Dalits, and meant that this case would likely be heard.
Every single one of these powerful people urged the inspector to not file the case. The inspector’s livelihood hung on what he did with this report.
Unbeknownst to Raj, or anyone on the phone lines, however, Chitharanjan was a Chirstian raised under a pious mother who taught him to love justice and fear God. Raj had happened upon the one police inspector in all of Tamil Nadu who might actually file the case. Fully realizing that he would lose his position as inspector of police, Chitharanjan filed the case.
Inspector Chitharanjan was swiftly removed from the district and demoted to the paperwork-filled “missing idols department.” The landowners in Anaigudi, Hindu and Christian alike, declared a boycott from hiring Raj’s entire community. Families were forced to move in search of work. This boycott would last an entire year.
A hired mob attacked Raj’s father and beat him. Three hired men even went after Raj with machetes, but Raj escaped by divine providence.
Raj appeared for his court hearing a little over a year later.
A different inspector had been summoned to testify rather than Chitharanjan. Raj’s friend who had been with Raj at the beginning of the assault had “turned hostile,” denying the story to protect his family. After the hearing, Raj received a letter.
There was no court ruling, nor was there an invitation for another hearing. Instead, it had been found that Raj’s case could not be tried under the provisions of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act because, according to the letter, Raj was not scheduled caste.
According to the Presidential Order of 1950, “… no person who professes a religion different from the Hindu, the Sikh or the Buddhist religion shall be deemed to be a member of a Scheduled Caste.”
Just four months ago, in November of last year, the government’s Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment reaffirmed that this order is constitutional, legal and valid.
Anaigudi’s church pastor had issued an official paper stating Raj’s conversion to Christianity. Raj’s case was switched into the back-logged public court system, and has not been heard to this day.
The Plight of the Church
We do not know whether the pastor in Anaigudi was obliged or pressured to give the statement on Raj’s conversion. It is true that the church had failed to intervene for Raj when he was being attacked. The church had also practiced segregating the dalits by having them sit on the floor in the back of the church during service, and only giving them communion after the service had finished. That said, it would not be surprising if there were more factors at play.
There is a narrative in India that India is Hindu, and any person who practices a religion that is not Hindu, Siikh or Buddhist is holding a foreign ideology and opposes India’s true identity and prosperity. This narrative has fueled anti-conversion laws, anti-Christian factions, and pervasive societal pressure.
“Freedom of Religion” Acts
Since the ratification of India’s constitution in 1949, pressure on christians and other religious minorities has only increased. Since as early as 1960, states throughout India have crafted acts under the name “Freedom of Religion,” which, in contrary to their name, attempt to restrict conversion from Hinduism to other religions.
Under the guise of fighting coercion, these laws criminalize conversions for marriage and make both officiants of conversion ceremonies, like baptism, and the converter report the incident for investigation by government officials. Failure to report is punishable, with ranging consequences varying on the state; these punishments have grown over time. These laws create space for malicious interpretation which can be and is abused. These laws were held as constitutional by the Supreme Court of India in 1977, although the acts are still in contention.
Militant hindu nationalist factions, legitimized by BJP’s hindu nationalist agenda, poise themselves against religious minorities throughout every state. The news they report frequently distorts facts and bathes them in militant and righteous language such as “safeguarding and protecting hinduism and Hindustan,” “defeat of anti-hindu forces,” and “church boasting of baptisms.” It is common for these groups to operate as mobs to intimidate activity they deem to be “anti-hindu.”
These factions reflect a general pressure on Christians and other religious minorities that is amplified by overall lack of protection under the law.
False allegations against Christians are common. Churches can come under scrutiny if they do not adhere to caste-distinctions, and christian non-profits are threatened with losing foreign funding on the basis of having a hidden agenda to convert.
It would not be surprising if the pastor in Anaigudi, albeit blindsided by his own prejudice, succumbed to pressure placed on him by the high caste townspeople. With the church’s own lack of governmental protection, the decision to issue an official statement on Raj’s conversion could seem like an insignificant cost for self-preservation.
Raj had been beaten, his community had been boycotted, his family attacked, and his court case buried. It could be easy to stop here. But what seemed helpless, was but a moment on God’s timeline.
So why were Raj, this inspector, and I meeting here on the side of the road?
After learning about Raj’s life, I cannot deny that God is on the side of justice… and when people choose love and hold to integrity, there is something far more powerful than any system of suppression, compromised bureaucracy, or malicious politician. And every once in a while, we get to glimpse how God is using our simple decision to love our neighbor or to do what we know to be right at the stake of our livelihood and the well being of our family.
This day on the side of a highway, we celebrated the day Raj’s case was filed. For the simple fact that a dalit could file a case against the son of a politician shot reform rippling through the entire region.
Suddenly people of high castes realized that the law could actually touch them. Violence against dalits reduced dramatically throughout the region. And the politician? He ran a few years later to be a member of the state legislative assembly, but when he arrived to dalit villages, each had a black flag over it in remembrance of what had happened to Raj. The politician lost the dalit vote and he lost the election, promptly ending his political career. His son, who had been groomed to take over, would never enter politics.
Forgiveness – A Seal Over Transformation
The final powerful mover for social justice is one that has impressed upon me as I have followed Raj’s story in and beyond this incident. As I have listened to how the church has mistreated him, how trusted friends have caved into pressure and betrayed him, and how a stigma on his caste has followed him even later into his life, I have been humbled and impressed by his continual conviction to forgive. And now I see that his forgiveness for the Anaigudi church and pastor, for those who attacked him, and for the friends that betrayed him- this forgiveness has defied the natural cycle of revenge. And instead, it has welcomed even those who hurt him to join in the movement for social justice, plowing the ground for others to follow suit. Forgiveness has placed a seal over this social transformation that undeniably bears Christ’s mark.
Get the full story of Raj’s remarkable life here.
This article is based off of my biography “Barefoot King: The Indian Dalit Who Defied Caste to Bless Others,” which details the full life story of Rajendran Anbalagan. I met Raj while working in Bangalore, India for a year. I never could have imagined how much we would need this story that gives a godly protagonist and a roadmap to seek social justice with love, integrity, and forgiveness. Learn more at barefootking.com.
Photos by Hayley Bennett Lyle and Verghis Photograph